By dusk, Love Park has usually made its transformation from a tourist-friendly lunch haven to an encampment for the homeless, who share benches, bottles and laughter deep into the night. But on this autumn Saturday evening, another group emerges from the margins to overtake the park. Gay, lesbian and transgender people of color trickle in from cars, the Broad Street Line and nearby 13th Street to congregate in mourning. They’ve come to speak out on behalf of 31-year old Stacey Blahnik Lee, a transgender woman who was permanently silenced on National Coming Out Day.
According to police, on Oct. 11, Stacey’s live-in boyfriend, Malik, found her dead in the bedroom of their Point Breeze home with a pillowcase wrapped around her neck. Police ruled her death a homicide.
“It’s a tragedy because every three days a transgender is murdered,” says Yonnie, 32, who identifies as a lesbian and one of Stacey’s best friends. “But we are all humans and she didn’t deserve that.” She and many of Stacey’s loved ones are demanding better treatment from the media and swifter action from the police.
To many, news outlets’ initial coverage of Stacey’s death was insensitive. The Daily News referred to her by her birth name, Michael Lee, setting her chosen name in quotation marks. Likewise, NBC 10 reported, “The victim is Michael Lee, a 31-year-old man who lived his life as a woman named Stacey Blahnik.”
The trivialization of Stacey’s male-to-female transition left loved ones, already in mourning, with the added burden of defending Stacey’s memory. “It is a big deal,” says Chyna, a transgender woman and one of Stacey’s best friends. “Show her some respect. She lived as a woman, address her as a woman.”
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation field media strategist Justin Ward says that transgender people suffer so much violence and workplace discrimination that using their preferred names and genders is the least reporters can do.
“Calling her by the name which she went by when she walked the face of this earth and making sure that our pronouns reflect that is a simple sign of respect and common decency.” Ward says GLAAD contacted the Daily News, which subsequently revised its initial story and also updated its style guide.
However, the mourners gathered at Love Park tonight fear that the media will disappoint them once again. They don Stacey’s face on their T-shirts, share tearful anecdotes, light candles in her memory and wonder aloud where the reporters are.
Jay, the father of the House of Blahnik, part of the black underground LGBT scene called the ballroom, appointed Stacey as overall mother. He describes her as beautiful inside and out, winning beauty contests as a sex siren and guiding other young transgender people on the right path. “She was a legend,” says Jay.
The night is slowly getting darker and the air more brisk, and people stand around restlessly. They’re waiting for somebody to make a speech. Waiting for the news cameras to arrive. Waiting for their prayers to be answered after this senseless crime.
For many of those who Stacey left behind—including Chyna, Malik and Yonnie—time is running out. Frightened that the police will let the case turn cold, the three have banded together to demand justice, which they believe slips further away with each passing day.
“We have to make them find out who did this, because if we don’t give a fuck, nobody will,” says Chyna. She and Stacey met as sixth-grade boys in Washington, D.C., and moved to Philadelphia in their 20s to take on a new life and new gender.
Chyna sees Stacey’s death as part of a larger pattern. “This is what they do to people like us,” she says. “Things like this we have to deal with constantly.” Exasperated, she angrily rattles off cases of unsolved murders against gay and transgender people. “A good friend of mine named Alphy Karan was shot and killed at point-blank range on 12th and Locust in ’99,” she says. “They still have not found the killer.”
Chyna also recalls the case of Nizah Morris, whose treatment by police sparked outrage from gay advocates in 2002. After leaving Key West nightclub intoxicated, Morris was dropped off by police at 15th and Walnut streets, where she was later found bleeding from her head. She soon died and her killer has never been found.
“I’m not saying they don’t care, but it’s like we’re at the bottom of the barrel,” Yonnie says.
Chyna says that with Stacey’s murder still unsolved, things have not gotten any easier. “We are giving each other support. But every day it gets harder.”
Malik shares Chyna’s concern about the case. “There’s still unsolved mysteries in the gay community that we know that they haven’t solved,” he says. “I feel like I owe it to her to fight for her when she can’t fight for herself.”
For Malik, that fight often consists of waiting by the phone, hoping the police will return his calls. He says they rarely do anymore. But that doesn’t stop him from dialing their number every day. “I call the detective every time I think of something,” he says. “I called again and told him I found a footprint of blood under the bed.” He points to an unfamiliar black smudge on the living room wall. He says he’s called him about that, too.
Around 6’4”, 39 years old and built like an NBA forward, he is reduced to wiping back tears and grasping at theories as he mourns for Stacey in the row home they moved into together last February. “We were perfect for each other,” he says.
While it’s nice that you have such an open and honest relationship with your parents—perhaps a little too open (I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my father for not teaching me how to eat pussy when I was 12)—your wife and your girlfriend aren’t similarly blessed.